Sharing WAY Too Much at Work
In Work Jerks: How to Cope with Difficult Bosses and Colleagues, I write about the Non-stop Talker and the Dramatic. Although I placed these two types in the chapter on narcissists, they aren’t necessarily that, but they do miss the mark in assessing their audience’s interest and grab the stage. I’m sure most can relate to having been the incessant talker and/or the beleaguered listener. Similarly, most of us can identify with having created awkward moments at work by being too informal, too familiar, or using language best reserved for close friends. What you say and to whom requires discernment.
A friend of mine relayed a misstep he’d made at work. They provide services to children and he and a colleague were discussing one girl’s personal hygiene. His coworker happened to be young and female. My friend has daughters and felt comfortable talking about how he'd instructed his children in bathing. Some of the terms he used would be appropriate to clinicians in a medical setting but were far too detailed for this conversation. The intern never mentioned her discomfort to my friend but she complained to the manager. My friend was taken off-guard by the boss's rebuke since he had intended no harm and hadn't realized he'd offended his coworker. Unfortunately, he didn't register the gender, age, and hierarchical differences which created a power differential. That's why the intern would never address her grievance directly with him. By failing to assess his audience, he didn't apply the appropriate censors.
Another debacle involved a former female client. The person she was speaking to was also a decades-younger female direct report. The staff member had performance problems that my client had not found a way to correct. In an attempt to promote comradery, she hoped that if they were "buddies" her coaching would be accepted more graciously so she decided to share a personal story. (If she'd come to me with this performance management strategy, I would have firmly steered her off of it.) Under the guise of “can you believe what we women have to deal with,” she told an anecdote about an out-of-town trip with a new romantic interest. She relayed the entire story to me and I admit it was hilarious—but completely inappropriate to share with anyone but the closest of friends. In this instance, the employee went to Employee Relations and filed a complaint.
These well-meaning, decent people completely misjudged the context of their environment and audience. Although embarrassed, each recovered from the incidents with their own management but not with the colleagues. While these examples involved younger women, any colleague could have found these discussions inappropriate or disturbing. It's just that the power differential made it worse.
I’m sympathetic. Who among us hasn’t made a gaffe in what we’ve said and to whom? I've learned that it's wise to stay slightly more formal at work. I've never forgotten one client group whose casualness with each other led to a host of problems. I interviewed each person to uncover their catalog of complaints. When I analyzed the data, it became clear they needed to class up their demeanor with each other. They reminded me of a dysfunctional family lounging around the living room in their rattiest clothes with empty beer cans and chip bags strewn about and yelling to each other over a blaring TV. No wonder they were having trouble communicating respectfully given that degree of informality.
Demeanor in addressing a direct report is particularly important. You may think “we’re all friends here,” but believe me, your employees know exactly who is in charge of their performance reviews and compensation. It's a relationship that is unequal by design. If the employee is stuck listening to something they don't want to hear, typically they won't address it directly because they fear reprisal. But even if you're speaking with a peer, it's important to use your emotional intelligence to suss out context and the appropriateness of what you say. The old adage rings true—think before you speak.